What STEM Requires, Dance Provides

Yamilée Toussaint Beach '08 combines dance and technology to empower more young women of color to pursue careers in STEM

When Yamilée Toussaint Beach ’08 sees stars like Beyoncé and Rihanna perform, she watches intently—not just because she loves the music and dancing but also because she is interested in the tech involved in the performance. The connection between tech and the arts so fascinates her that it prompted her in 2012 to found STEM From Dance, a nonprofit that takes an unusual approach to preparing black and Latina young women for education and work in technical fields.

Motivated by her experiences as an MIT student, Toussaint Beach saw the need to increase the representation of other young women of color in engineering and related fields. First, she wanted to understand what barriers were causing this underrepresentation—so, after graduating, she joined Teach for America. Among her students, she observed a lack of the necessary exposure to STEM fields, mindset, and confidence needed to pursue a technical education. And she had a hunch—that dance could help to supply all of these. 

Dancing was something Toussaint Beach says she did as soon as she could walk, and at MIT, dance became an outlet for the stress of school and a reboot for her confidence. After a couple of years of teaching, she began to experiment with a hybrid dance-and-STEM curriculum and saw promising results. “Dance gives us this opportunity to build the students’ confidence and widen their perception about the potential of having a future in a STEM career,” she says. “Also, using dance helps to make complicated STEM concepts easier to learn.”

Now, through STEM From Dance’s workshops and summer camp offerings, she and her team help participants create a dance performance with a technological component. That could be “a costume that lights up every time they jump, or using computer programming to make the music they dance to,” she explains. “If you look at a performer like Beyoncé or Rihanna, oftentimes when they perform they have some kind of projection that’s happening on their stage. There’s just so many ways that technology and STEM show up already in pop culture and dance, and we want to give students that experience of creating both.”

Toussaint Beach is always looking for new ways to infuse technology into the program. Last year, as a host for the MIT Alumni Association’s Student/Alumni Externship Program, she even recruited MIT undergrads to develop prototypes for future performances, such as a shirt that converts movement into light and sound.

To date, more than 550 young women have participated in STEM From Dance. Watch the video above to hear Toussaint Beach talk about the program and to see its participants in action.